Thursday, August 21, 2008

Five red flags in claims of publishers

These are claims made about publishers – either by representatives of the company or by authors - which I would personally see as warning signs. Maybe not warning me to run, but definitely suggesting that I investigate further.

1. “We don’t charge upfront fees.”

Firstly, it should be a given that a commercial publisher doesn’t charge fees, upfront or otherwise, so to produce this as a positive is like a bank trying to attract customers by saying, “You will not be embezzled here”.

Secondly, there are so many more ways for scammers, amateur micropresses and vanity publishers to defraud authors that they might very well trumpet that they don’t charge upfront fees. The now-defunct Rain Publishing, for instance, didn’t charge upfront fees, but it took the authors’ copyright. So the truthful declaration of “no upfront fees” may be enough to set writers at so much ease that they don’t ask further questions, like “What kind of distribution does the publisher have?” (And the correct answer is not “Our books are listed online at

2. “We are a family.”

The claim that authors become part of the publisher’s “family” is a great way to blur the lines of what should be a business relationship. Warm fuzzies feel nice, but they’re rarely a good substitute for professional treatment, and authors who are repeatedly told that they’re part of one big happy family are less likely to evaluate their treatment objectively and to identify when a publisher isn’t doing what publishers should do.

And in commercial publishing, authors aren’t defined as belonging to one publisher's "family". I love George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, but I can’t remember who published them. Bantam Spectra maybe? I’d have to look at the books to be sure.

3. “We do everything our contract says we will do.”

This is one of the primary defenses that PA authors use when their vanity press/author mill is criticized – the fact that PA does everything its contract says it will do. I’m sure this makes PA sound very honest and responsible to anyone who doesn’t ask exactly what the contract specifies PA will do (answer : not a whole lot).

A publisher or vanity press that didn’t do what its contract said it would do probably wouldn’t have lasted long before being sued for breach of contract. But being able to write a contract that allows the publisher to do very little, and then abiding by the terms of that contract, don’t seem like good enough reasons to sign up with that publisher.

4. “We’re not interested in making money.”

An editor for the now-defunct micropress Luna Brilliante said here,

“Our goal was never to get rich off this endeavor. We want to create great works of Speculative Fiction. We want readers clamoring for our books. We want our authors to become well known and do well. If we can at least break even on every book we create, then we're doing just fine.”

This one would send me running, but I’m kind of a mercenary practical person at heart, not to mention concerned about Filthy Lucre money. I once knew a writer who believed art (and the production thereof) should not have financial considerations and restrictions attached to it, so he might have been more at ease with statements like this.

What bothers me about such claims is that if a publisher thinks breaking even is fine, how much does the author earn? Or maybe I should say, does the author earn? I’m a firm believer in writing for love, but publishing for profit, so if I had to choose between a publisher which talks about making authors happy and one which talks about making money, it wouldn’t be too tough a choice.

5. "We want to make your dreams come true."

As a promoter of Rain Publishing once said here,

"Rain Publishing is not producing books; it is creating a mental voyage. A magic carpet ride to escape reality for a moment in time and become one with the written world of thoughtful illusion."

That is very pretty advertising copy. But I'd prefer a publisher which produces books (as well as editing, marketing and distributing them), and I'd rather hear details along these lines than talk which reminds me of "A Whole New World" from Aladdin.

Anything about making my dreams come true turns me off. I want to know about cover blurbs, distribution, print runs, catalogs, advances, royalties and subsidiary rights instead. Magic carpet rides are fun, but they don't pay the bills so well.

Further reading on ripoffs here.

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